How fortunate we Yale people are! For several years now, we’ve marked an annual “Sex Week At Yale.” Naturally, sex is on our minds year round, but this week offers us an opportunity to talk in a focused way about love, relationships and intimacy. If our experience in the college seminar we co-teach on the family in the Jewish tradition is any indication, questions about sex, love, marriage, desire and fulfillment constellate into the most pressing issues that undergraduates face.
When a sex therapist teams up with a rabbi to teach about the family, discussion veers toward consideration of what it means to love and be a lover. When we speak, one of us tends to reference Masters and Johnson and the Kinsey Report, while the other inclines towards the records of a higher power — the Bible’s Song of Songs and Maimonides’s notions about how to love God, for instance. Citations aside, both of us believe that there are a number of culturally supported “romantic illusions” that threaten to undermine genuine love relationships.
For instance, there is a belief that a true lover intuitively knows how to bring satisfaction — sensual, psychological, intellectual, sexual — without requiring instruction or help from the beloved. But while the disposition to love may be innate (as the rabbi avers), the forms by which love can be expressed need to be learned and refined in the context of a trusting relationship. The sexologist adds that it is critically important that women take responsibility for their sexual satisfaction by teaching their partners what is needed to bring them to orgasm. Even sex therapists cannot teach a lover to bring his or her partner to sexual satisfaction if she doesn’t tell him what it is that she desires. We tend to disagree about whether women have a harder time experiencing sexual satisfaction than men, but both of us believe that this satisfaction is part of loving and being loved.
Still, satisfaction alone does not a lover make. Lovers ought to be friends; they ought to have time for each other; and they ought to be interested in each other as persons, not exclusively as sexual partners. They ought to trust each other so that they can share secrets, delights and worries. A lover discovers his or her deepest pleasure in experiencing and sharing the delight of the other person.
But sharing in the delight of one another does not mean sharing every detail about life. There are things best kept quiet, for intimacy does not preclude privacy, and the taste of union should be distinguished from the phenomenon of psychological merging. These days, with Facebook and other mediums for information sharing, there is often a compulsion toward full disclosure, but even as they blog, lovers must remember that privacy protects the integrity of the individual.
Kindness is a lover’s virtue, as is gentleness, patience and understanding. Sex happens, of course, outside of these parameters but when it does, it is not lovemaking. Jewish spiritual traditions tend toward a positive and realistic embrace of sexual desire and expression. Within marriage, sexual intercourse is regarded as a mitzvah, a sacred act of unification. But as the late great rabbinic scholar Joseph Soloveitchik taught, there are two aspects to the performance of every mitzvah, the external maaseh and the internal kiyum. It is an art to bring both aspects into harmony, which is to say a mitzvah cannot be forced, but only allowed.
Nobody should be pressured to engage in sexual activity, but rather it should be a personal choice. Just as we honor the act of sex, we honor the decision of many men and women a Yale to enter marriage before becoming sexually active.
We urge all who are sexually active to use your experience to prepare to become true lovers. Unsurprisingly, this means using contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancies and taking proper precautions against contracting any sexual disease because you were not prepared at the moment of passion.
But most importantly, it means remembering again and again that true intimacy is not inherently or primarily sexual, that sex can breed and express hatred as easily as love, and that the arts of love and lovemaking need to be learned slowly over time.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer is a nationally acclaimed sex therapist. Rabbi James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale.